That plan aims to adjust and streamline postal service after losses of 8.5 billion dollars in fiscal 2010. But some say those losses could be negated with a change to the post office pension funds. Steve Knight has more.
View Post Offices In Danger in a larger map
“This is kind of what’s left of our community. We’ve lost our stores. We have one store. A lot of bars though,” one Parishville resident said. “Well, priorities, honey," another replied.
The Parishville post office is one of a dozen post offices scheduled for closure across the North Country, including Hailesboro, outside of Gouverneur.
These small rural post offices have been targeted because they run budget deficits and many don’t even have postmasters.
Maureen Marion, the regional spokesperson for the postal service, said that as people change the way they use the post office in a digital age, the postal service is changing they way they do business.
“We’ve taken billions – with a ‘b’ – of cost out of our operations over the last several years as a result of those kind of aggressive actions but it hasn’t been enough," Marion said. "So now we’ve begun to look at some of our bricks and mortar.”
Others say the financial situation is not quite so dire. The post office is an independent agency of the federal government and it is often attacked for misusing taxpayer dollars, but Congressman Bill Owens said the post office is actually giving too much money back to the government. It comes down to a discrepancy in retiree health benefits.
“There’s a huge dispute about what that funding level should be. Some people will tell you there is a $50 billion overfunding,” Owens said. This overpayment is partly to blame for the closing of small post offices, according to Owens.
Myke Reid, of the American Postal Workers Union, agrees with Owens: “The pressures on the postal service to change their business model now come about solely because of this requirement that they prefund retiree health benefits… The postal service is actually a success story.”
Owens said he is co-sponsoring legislation that would readjust postal service pension funding, “and that would save the post office people, I believe, about five billion a year, which is roughly the amount of their loss. So that would really indirectly take the pressure off these closure issues.”
Owens said that post offices are important to communities because they are a social center where people interact and keep tabs on one another.
“It is also, for the elderly in particular, a way to check on whether or not they have come in for their mail. Are they doing ok? Has something happened? And because these are small communities, when someone doesn’t show up after a day or so, people will look in on them and make sure there isn’t something seriously wrong," Owens said. "So we run a real risk of losing that social fabric.”
Regardless of the legislative maneuvering at the national level, Post Office Spokesperson Marion said they are looking for regional solutions: “Those are issues and concerns that, at the local level, we really have no control. Our goal locally is to respond to the cards we have in our hands right now. And the cards we have in our hands right now is that the postal service is working in a cash poor environment.”
There may be hope for these small post offices yet on the legislative horizon, but for now closure is a real possibility.
“It would necessitate rural delivery, which is a financial hardship on the entire community," said Betsy Kirby, who lives next to the Hailesboro post office. She is working to keep the post office from closing because she said the closure would disproportionately affect the elderly and disabled, who account for half of Hailesboro’s PO boxes.
Kirby and other community members plan to deliver a letter to the postal service, laying out their appeal. Once the postal service decides to close a branch, an appeal process could take seven months.
One of their concerns, an unintended consequence of a closure, is that the community would no longer use the local post office to mail military care packages. Four times a year, Hailesboro residents pack 160 boxes for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They are always mailed at the Hailesboro post office for several reasons. The access. And the community pitching in the help carry the packages," Kirby said.
If the Hailesboro post office closes, Kirby said they would lose a community tradition and the post service would lose $9,500 of revenue.